If you’re reading this blog, it’s a safe assumption that you have some interest in Japan and it’s culture. While there are many books on Japan, most focus on history, politics, or special interests. There are countless books on kendo, the tea ceremony, ninjutsu, the Warring States Period, and the rotating turnstile of prime ministers. There aren’t terribly many that detail the day to day intricacies of life and the culture. Probably for the same reason there aren’t many on the day to day intricacies of American life. Who would want to read about something so ordinary and common sense? But what is common sense for some is fantastic for others. My previous post on Japanese dating culture received a bit of positive feedback, and I intend on writing more articles in that vein. Something along the lines of everything no one tells you about Japan.
However, it is always good to have multiple sources on any topic of interest. Don’t believe everything you read, as they say. Corroborating information strengthens any statement. So while I would like my readers to trust me, some cautious optimism is best applied. I’m human, I make mistakes and I sometimes misunderstand things. For that very reason I would encourage you to seek out more literature on Japanese culture.
If you are interested in learning more about Japan and it’s culture, please consider reading the following:
21st Century Japan: A New Sun Rising by Trevor W. Harrison
An excellent account of Japan’s more recent history and the country’s growth into its current global role. His discussion of Japan’s military and geopolitical struggles are especially worthy of note.
Japanese Culture by H. Paul Varley
This book deals with Japanese cultural history, primarily in the realm of the arts. A bit dry but a very informative read. A good book for building a foundation of understanding on the culture.
A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony by Hector Garcia
Titles like this normally don’t lend themselves to books of such quality. I was surprised at how accurate, well thought out, and concise a writing on the cultures and sub-cultures detailed of Japan. This book supplies an excellent primer to the life style of your average Japanese student, office worker, and many more. While many similar writings try to define the culture by a Western perspective, Hector Garcia does an excellent job of objectively presenting the reality faced by each facet of the population.
For more current and interactive information, the Something Awful web forum has a Japan thread run by an active group of ex-pats in numerous careers throughout Japan that discuss the culture and their experiences. The individuals on the forum are generally well spoken and well informed, discussing a broad range of topics.
Written May 3, 2013
I decided to move back to the US. Well, I decided to do that a while ago. I’ve already moved back to the US. My fiancée and I agreed it is better that I come here first and set up house before she comes over. Right, I’m engaged now, too. It really has been a long time since I last posted, hasn’t it?
I arrived in San Francisco last week. Being back in the US is so surreal. Like I’m in a dream on the verge of waking, brushed with a sense of déjà vu. Everything is familiar but strange. Kinda hazy.
American money still feels weird to me. Bills are all the same size, and so many coins of so little value. I keep trying to pay with quarters and then realize that would be kind of dickish. And it’s all so fragrant.
I keep forgetting tax isn’t included in prices. I’ll have the amount ready and then – oh, another eighteen cents? Hold on a moment. Well, okay, yeah. Just take it out of the five. Now I have another handful of quarters and pennies. At least I haven’t forgotten to tip yet.
Breasts. Of so many sizes and shapes. Well, really just variations on one shape. But they have heft and bounce and are partly exposed. I’m only now realize how much I’ve been starved for the sight of cleavage. Call me a chauvinist or a pervert, but I’m just realizing how conservative the clothing of Tokyo was, and scale of difference between the mammaries of Japan and the US. It warms my heart.
Lots more cars, far fewer trains. The cars with mustaches confused the hell out of me at first. I miss hopping on the train and just going anywhere. But taxis are reasonable option here, and many if my friends have cars and can give me a ride. There’s just more space out here for cars.
Oh and how there is space. I feel like I’ve been let out of a bodice three sizes to small. On the one hand, I feel like it takes longer to do small errands because everything is spread out. On the other hand, I don’t feel so agitated by the constant crowd of people.
I keep being asked by friends what I miss about Japan. The answer? Nothing. I haven’t been back long enough to miss it. I’m sure in time I will miss some or all of it. But I was there for there years. Weird as it sounds Japan feels old hat to me and America feels shiny and new. I’m happy to be back in the US.
This article is mostly for the benefit of Western readers. However, I feel it can also help Japanese readers who would like to better understand the Western perspective of Japanese dating. I’ve included my thoughts as a Westerner on Japanese dating culture for that reason. Virgin or veteran, I feel for any Westerner or Easterner who dates or aspires to date inter-culturally this is worth a read. Who knows? You might just understand the other half a little better after this.
I’m going to start out with a disclaimer: Every person- and consequently every situation- is different. I’m sure people can find exceptions to what I am putting forth as general rules. But they are just that: generalities. I am by no means an expert. I am going off of my experience and some discussions with my Japanese friends and friends who have lengthy experience with the culture. Additionally, I am a man, so all of my understanding comes from the perspective of a man. I would love more input from the experiences of others. I would especially love to hear back from my Japanese friends with their thoughts and perspectives on the topic. Ladies especially. Any more I can learn will only serve myself and others better. That being said, let’s dive right in.
Japan, and as I understand it most of Asia, has a very different dating culture than that of the West. I can best describe it as courting with initial ambiguity. Things also move much more slowly than in the west.
Initial dating, or the lead up to dating, always begins in a group. You go out with mutual friends, or a group of your friends and a group of her friends together. You will probably only bring friends of the same sex. Bringing a friend of the opposite sex can often be misinterpreted. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but more of a rule of thumb. Being in a group diffuses the pressure and allows each party to take stock of the company the other keeps. Meeting their friends and having the friends’ approval can be very important, but not always. In the group, you focus almost solely on the one you are interested in. If you can, you may break off from the group as to only talk with each other. This is how you show interest.
After several outings like this, say five or six, you may ask to do something just the two of you. A movie, grabbing coffee or going to the park. Typical date type things, but generally in public. This allows each of you to gauge how you feel about being alone with the other. After spending time together outside of the group for a while, also probably five or six times, one person will confess their love for the other. This is called “kokuhaku,” and is in most cases done by the man. If the other returns those feelings, then they become boyfriend and girlfriend. The relationship then proceeds as relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends do. There ends any significant differences.
At the point of kokuhaku is where we consider two people to begin dating. Everything before that is considered getting to know each other in a friendly manner. In the West we would argue that dating is simply getting to know someone better with romantic intent to see if you would like a relationship with them, so that the time spent outside of the group would be considered dates. From my understanding the Japanese do not see it that way.
Also to be noted is that no physical intimacy occurs until after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend. I don’t just mean sex, but kissing and I think even hand holding. All of that comes after the relationship. Attempting a kiss can make a Japanese person think you are only interested in sex or a physical relationship and not a serious or romantic relationship. A lot of miscommunication can occur here. For example, often a Westerner will want to kiss someone they are seeing and the Easterner doesn’t want to be kissed yet. The Westerner will think the Easterner isn’t interested in a relationship with him/her. The Easterner will think the Westerner only wants to sleep with him/her and doesn’t want an actual relationship. Since we in the West use kissing as an expression of romantic intent and as a stepping stone to building a relationship, it can be especially confusing and frustrating. So far as physical intimacy after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend: I believe everything is fair game. Eastern cultures don’t have the religious stigma of sex before marriage being a sin, so most are open to premarital sex. Obviously how soon they are willing to have sex after becoming boyfriend and girlfriend is based on the individual.
The use of kokuhaku is also a bit of a culture shock for Westerners. Love is a very powerful word and concept in English. Telling someone “I love you” in such a manner as kokuhaku is consequently very serious. In Western dating one would only tell someone “I love you” after being boyfriend and girlfriend for a good amount of time. One says those words only with someone they feel they want to spend the rest of their lives with. Westerners try not to say those words until they are sure of that feeling. We use the less powerful word “like” until then. But even telling someone “I like you” can be tricky. Saying those words makes the thing real and in the open. It makes you think about their feelings, your feelings and adds pressure to the situation. One worries about hurting the other person’s feelings and it turns a once playful situation very serious. For those reasons most Westerners prefer romantic actions over confessions of love. With an action you don’t need to think, simply to do. One will feel what they feel and it clarifies any concerns or confusions. Most commonly we use a kiss. Kissing is a very clear sign that someone likes and wants to date you. Unless they are drunk. Then all bets are off.
Because of the kokuhaku culture expressing interest in someone can also be tricky for a Westerner. The Japanese language does not contain gradations of the word like. All of the general words used to tell someone you have feelings for them in Japanese (好き suki, 大好き daisuki, 愛知てる ai shitteru) are equivalent to telling someone you love them. Each one is just a stronger way of saying that you love them. So far as I know there is no Japanese equivalent for “like” in the way it is used in English. This can be confusing as 好き which is generally translated into English as “like” isn’t used in the same manner when applied to people in Japanese. If a Westerner tells a Japanese person in English “I like you” or in Japanese “好きだよ” it will be interpreted as “I love you.” Most likely they will think you are giving a kokuhaku and asking them to become your significant other. The Westerner in this case most likely only wants to go on a few dates and learn if they would be interested in becoming boyfriend and girlfriend if things work out.
From a Western perspective this style of dating can seem a bit childish and immature. Some of that feeling stems from the Eastern style of dating being similar to how we in the West date during high school. Adult dating in the West moves a bit faster than the East. For adults in the West we use physical intimacy, kissing especially, as a way of determining compatibility. To remove physical intimacy from dating in the West is to make dating the same as building a friendship. If a person does not want to kiss us or be physical with us, we take that as a sign that they are not interested in us as a boyfriend / girlfriend. We assume they just want to be friends.
As I stated at the beginning, these are generalities and there will be exceptions. Easterners who have lived abroad, are a little bit older (late twenties on) or live in a major city may be more open to dating differently. With a Westerner, especially, they will expect there to be some cultural differences. They may even be aware of your cultural norms. But less traveled and young ones are more likely to be surprised by things outside of their cultural norms. There are also people who are just looking for- or are open to- one night stands, sleeping around or being friends with benefits. Roppongi in Tokyo is infamous for being rife with bars and clubs where Japanese women go to look for a one night foreign boyfriend. This is all well and good if that is what you are looking for, but seeking one night stands or a quick lay isn’t dating. Different rules apply. Some people find relationships this way but it won’t always be the best way to find one. It’s also a small subsection of the population. Not surprisingly one many foreigners find their way to.
For all the differences in dating culture one thing holds true in both: Dating can be confusing, trying and stressful. It can also be fun, wonderful and rewarding. Dating is called a game for a reason. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. The more you play, the better your chances of winning. But it always helps to know the rules of the game.
I’m starting to get a bit more settled here in Tokyo. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but it’s a process. Big city, new situation, millions of people, all that jazz. I took the time to take stock of my life and decided I’m pretty much happy with it. I have a place to live in an awesome city. I am employed and health insured. My job is fairly easy, gives me a decent salary and allows me a good deal of free time. I am moving ahead on plans for life post teaching English. I’m developing a network of friends and starting to solidify the core of it. This is also allowing me to keep my social calendar as full or as empty and I wish of it. Everything is, for the most part, pretty darn good. Are things perfect? No. I’d be lying if I denied that something big is missing.
It is no secret that I want a relationship. There is also nothing wrong with that. I am human; this is how we are wired. We are social creatures, and while friends fill certain aspects of our needs, little else provides the companionship and intimacy of a significant other. I do miss those. The issue is I was pursuing relationships in a western fashion. I mean, why not? Doing so worked perfectly well for me before. Lately, however, it caused me a bit of trouble. The result being my life is a bit of an emotional roller coaster. Highs and lows, things going really well then plummeting down to the gutters. All while I am left frustrated, disappointed, confounded and clueless. I’ve also had a combination of the best and the worst luck dating wise in quick succession. I have a number of stories I would be happy to share, but this would not be the right forum for it. What I will say about my romantic attempts with the opposite sex is this: I wish things turned out differently. I wish I had better timing. Especially with the most recent one.
But, there is nothing one can do to change the past. You can only move forward.
From all of this I am learning that Western dating culture and Eastern dating culture are vastly different. A conversation with a Japanese lady friend of mine who found herself equally confused after a few dates with a Western man began this realization. I have since spoken with a number of my Japanese friends and come to learn a good deal more about the Japanese way of doing things. From a Western perspective, the Japanese style of dating seems very regimented, strict, serious, immature and perhaps even prude. From a Japanese perspective, the Western style of dating seem brash, arrogant and slutty. Both side views the other as crazy. The Japanese language not having any gradation on the words like and love certainly doesn’t help either.
In my case, a number of people misunderstand my actions as hunting for a girlfriend- thinking that anyone will do- and that all I want is sex. This is far from the reality, and it bothered me quite a bit. Then I decided that whoever likes me and will be my friend is going to like me for me and will try to understand me. Whoever doesn’t simply isn’t going to regardless. The ones who aren’t going to like me can jump off Skytree for all I care.
I’m going to write two posts following this. One of the Western culture of dating, and one on the Japanese / Asian culture of dating. These are going to be fairly big posts, and I’m looking for input and feedback from others on this. Keep tuned you Western boys and Eastern girls. It could be useful. Or at least interesting.
My life is many things. Uninteresting is not one of them. For all the lull and hum drum of living in the countryside, crazy shit still seems to happen to me. For example: the owner of my local bar- whom I am friends with- calling me up out of the blue and inviting me to dinner at a yakitori restaurant with our regular crowd. After dinner a waitress suggesting we do one hour at karaoke with her. Arriving home at four. Waking up at seven. Arriving at school at eight to learn that today is bring your parent to school day, I have to rewrite all my lessons to combine two grades at a time and be twice as long. This is why I normally don’t go out during the week. What is supposed to be dinner and home by nine becomes “Where did I leave my socks -holy toledo is it really four in the morning?”
When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. If you don’t have water and sugar, you develop a taste for sour fruit. Or you can go somewhere with water and sugar and make lemonade there. Travel is one of my favorite things to do in Japan. Despite the malaise and worry that comes from my isolation and financial constraints, I do my best to stay above the storm clouds. Travel and staying close to friends is one of the best ways I know how.
When I interviewed for this position in the States together with Saba, a friend I had made through Yelp. We both were hired. Me to the Osaka branch and she to the Hamamatsu branch. While conferring plans to travel to Kobe for Luminarie we noted that in all our time living Japan we had yet to visit each other. Simply put, I normally would have no reason to visit Hamamatsu. Hamamatsu is like Trenton, New Jersey. Unless you know someone there or are from there, what would ever motivate you to go there? ButI do like travel, new experiences and new scenery, so I opted to visit on my three day weekend.
Hamamatsu reminds me of Yamagata, where I formerly lived. It’s small, quiet, and there’s not terribly much to do or see during the day. I did a bit of sight seeing, but that took only half a day. The castle, the gardens, the tea house, the art musuem. Hamamatsu has a very quaint and peaceful vibe similar to Yamagata, just a little more built up.
There’s more of a foreign influence in this city than there was in Yamagata. The combination of a small city with some (but not much) foreign influence means that the foreign community tends to be fairly tight knit. The result is there’s a good crowd of the same people going to several of the same bars and clubs on a regular basis. Some people might find this a but hum drum, but when living abroad such a community is comforting. As an outsider it was fun to take part, especially with the festivities that took place.
We spent much of the night with four or Saba’s friend: Sian, Yuriko, Mitsuki and Akiko. Sian teaches at an eikaiwa, and the other three are her students. On that night it was Akiko’s birthday, so there was a good crowd at the regular foreigner bar (and cake!) We drank, we partied, and had fun.
I had the opportunity to meet some of the regulars. There were a number of Americans and Canadians, all English teachers. A couple of Japanese men and women interested English and foreign culture. A Brazilian bar owner taking the night off to drink at a his friends bar. All somewhat standard of a foreign bar. With the exception of one fabulously gay Indonesian man named Deris, who despite the weather wore nothing but a short sleeve hoodie and shorts.
As night wore on the girls said they wanted to go dancing. Deris mentioned the Monster party at Seven Street Bar. The girls, who attended the last Monster party, were quite excited at the prospect. They said most people came in costume and that it was quite fun. Always a fan for costumes I agreed to go along.
I did not realize until I arrived that the Seven Street Bar was a gay bar. This took me by surprise. I felt like a little section of the Castro was carved out and put into this bar. Being a heterosexual foreigner in a gay bar in Japan, I was a bit concerned on how I would be received. Given the experiences of a friend of mine who often visited Kabuki-cho San-chome with his girlfriend and her gay friends I did not expect a warm welcome. Deris and the girls insisted it would be fine. And it was. Though not much one for clubs or dancing, I enjoyed myself and the company of Akiko, Saba, Mitsuki, and Deris (the others went home.)
The surprising thing is I didn’t see many Japanese men at the bar. Mostly there were foreign men. The foreign gay populace appears to be very open, so what about the Japanese? This started me thinking about homosexuality in Japanese culture. I’ve heard some people -usually foreigners- talk about the Japanese perspective on homosexuality as highly advanced. Advanced meaning it is very open, simply accepted and no one cares. The conversations I have with Japanese people tend to present a different view of the matter. While Japanese people do not take a violent reproach to homosexuality like many in the US do, it is not a very open subject.
From what I gather from the limited reactions and discussions I have with my Japanese associates on this topic, homosexuality generally isn’t talked about. Homosexuality is viewed as different (which in Japanese culture can mean a dissociative wrong) and humorous. The response to homosexuality tends to be “He’s gay ha ha that’s strange and funny!” rather than “Oh my God you’re gay get out of here before I beat you fag!” Obviously the later viewpoint is less appealing, but given that existing outside of social norms is looked down upon in this culture, I’m not sure the first is much better. I know there are very strong gay communities from the existence of Kabuki-cho San-chome in Tokyo and the gay bars and clubs in Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima . However, these appear to be very closed and quiet societies. There appears to be little to no open homosexuality in Japanese society. Most of these clubs and bars are geared towards homosexual men as well, which leaves me wondering what options there are for lesbian women.
My information comes from very limited experience and is mostly conjecture, I will admit. I may be entirely off on this and i hope to find out. This is something I am curious to learn more about as I don’t think it is an often discussed subject or one very transparent to foreigners. If it is, the people I normally associate with are not privy to it. I imagine the answers may interest some of my friends back home.
I suppose it’s something to look into.
Living in a foreign country can be strange. It can be exciting and stressful, confusing and enlightening, depressing and uplifting. The experience is unique for everyone and unique in itself. This is my third time in Japan; my second time living here. My last visit was a whirlwind of excitement and without question the best vacation I ever had. My first time living here – despite its troubles – is still something I look back on positively.
There’s nothing like the first time. Everything is new. Everything is different. The discovery of similarities to your native land are as exciting as discovering the differences. One can easily become jaded and complacent as an adult. Having the simplest experiences feel novel is a refreshing return to youth. Best of all you have others to share this with, like grade school playmates. They, too, are finding this same elation and want to share it with you. Nick – my former partner in crime- commented accurately that living in Japan is like being a child again. You can barely communicate, you understand very little and comprehending something new feels like a great triumph. Everything is a first.
The second time is not the first, nor does it hold the same excitement. I suppose that goes without saying. I did something uncommon in leaving and coming back. As a result I have a very different context than other people I meet. The every day minutia is not as exciting to me as it is my coworkers, for whom it is their first time in Japan. I also am not settled into the country the way those who are second or third year ALTs are settled. Consequently I often feel I have trouble relating to other foreigners here. This is improving, but it is a frustrating place to be. Excited as I was to return, the second time around is different.
The second stage of culture shock is the Negotiation Phase. The former feelings of elation fade to frustration and anger from displeasing encounters. Having lived in Japan before I thought myself exempt from such shock, but obviously I was wrong. I entered into this situation with a lot of expectations that were not fulfilled. What I am left with is not bad, but in my arrogance I sometimes blind myself to the good around me. In knowing and wanting something else I miss what is there. When I knew not, I wanted not and grabbed hold of each experience. Truly, ignorance is bliss.
I will adapt again. I know this. I also know that the friends I have now who I can relate to are something special.I learned that the last time as well. When you go back home, it’s like you’ve left a part of yourself behind. You want the best of both worlds. You will always feel split between them. You see how much has changed in your home and in your friends. But the biggest change is the hardest to see. That is the change in yourself. You share something special with the friends you go through that with, or friends you meet who have also gone through that. You understand each other in ways most people won’t. This isn’t a bond made with everyone, but the few people it is made with it are priceless.
Kids say the darnedest things. That’s why Bill Cosby was able to extend his television career with a show about it for several years after the end of the Cosby show. My male students, like young boys anywhere in the world, are obsessed with dirty words. I can’t count the number of times the my students shouted “Penn iss!”as I passed in the halls. Recently, they have upgraded their usage. Since last week, two of them now occasionally say “Keith-sensei, big penn iss. Elephant.” Japan does wonders for my ego.
Do they think it's prehensile, too?
Today in class we reviewed “I like ~” and some vocabulary to accompany it. We reviewed some sports as a matter of course, one of which was table tennis. On the third set of repeats, I hear a loud, clear voice declare “Table Penn Iss!” Half the class went quiet with confusion and the other half laughed. I replied with a “Nande aho na koto yuta?” (Why are you saying such foolish things?) But secretly I was proud.
I’m faced with my own special brand of honne and tatemae. As an authorty figure I am meant to discourage bad behavior and foul language. Yet in my heart I am proud they are making an effort to learn more of the language and are focusing on the parts that interest them. The teacher facade presents a sense of naivety when they say penn iss, and pretends to misunderstand the word as tennis. Meanwhile, the true teacher in me wants to correct their pronunciation. That could be bad though. The last thing I need are a a bunch of ten year olds running around shouting “PENIS!”more clearly and correctly than before. This is more reasons I am proud he made the table penn iss joke. The joke shows he is paying attention in class and retaining what I’ve said.
A great deal of Japanese culture is about what is expected. No matter how long you studied or how well you’ve mastered the language, some things just can’t be taught in a class room. A lot of the initial culture shock for foriegners coming to Japan are the culture’s intricacies. What to do when, how to do it, who you do it for and who does it for you. Experience is irreplacable in certain situations. As a foreigner we are often exempt and forgiven for the lack of knowledge of many of these things, at first. Part of what is expected is that you don’t understand any of the expectations. Honne and tatemae are part of this, and speaking your mind openly can be done relatively safely. As time passes though, one is expected to learn the culture and adapt.
I wonder as the year passes if the candid nature I posses- a Boston trademark- may have to be something I must reign in. I am always polite and tactful, yet tatemae also means conforming to the group. If I am to teach my students “penis,” “boobs” and “poop,” I suppose now would be the time to do it. I may not be able to get away with it later.